Monday, June 11, 2012

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the crisis of the Western welfare state

Responding to friendly critics on "Crooked Timber," Francis Spufford, author of Red Plenty, a new novel about the ideological climax moment for the Soviet Union in the early 1960s (which I confess I haven't read yet), perfectly captures my own sense of what the Soviet Union's collapse meant politically in the West:
I was 27 when the Soviet Union fell, ceased to be, shuffled off this mortal coil. I was too young to have experienced... it way back in the 1970s as a place which, barbarous and dictatorial though it was, nevertheless was essentially on the reasonable side of the economic argument; somewhere that, by opting for planning, had chosen the better economic model. On the other hand, I was too old to [experience] it as a will-o’-the-wisp, vanishing as I studied it, and leaving nothing behind but tedium and stale air. For me, as a teenager in the early 80s, having the traditional nuclear annihilation dream at regular intervals – my friends would usually drive past me in a bus while the asphalt melted just behind my fleeing heels – the USSR was not a possible object of admiration, but it was an object of solidity. Its defining feature was its permanence. It was an inevitable part of the planet’s architecture: obsolete but immovable. And then it did move, and when it went its going suddenly disclosed a set of hidden linkages that pulled various aspects of my familiar, home experience away after it. It seemed that my Western socialism – the unbarbarous kind – had had an unsuspected dependence on the existence of the Soviet model. And not just because the USSR was definitionally useful to social democrats, letting us point and say “Not that!” It had also served, it turned out when it was gone, as a sort of massive concrete tentpeg, keeping the Overton Window (not that it was called that, yet) tethered at its lefthand edge in a way that maintained the legitimacy, in western discussion, of all kinds of non-market thinking. When the USSR vanished, so with amazing speed in the 1990s did the entire discourse in which there were any alternatives to capitalism that had to be taken seriously. This was the biggest intellectual change of my lifetime – the replacement of one order of things, which I had just had time to learn and to regard as permanent, with a wholly different one, in radical discontinuity with it.
Even though the collapse of the Soviet Union had no ideological impact on Western social democrats, who had no sympathy for the Soviet system's brutality and economic underperformance, it nonetheless provoked a broad-scale political crisis for social democracy. This is because the collapse of a far left alternative moved the entire political conversation to the right. What had been "centrist" politics in the 1970s and 1980s suddenly became as far left as you could go. (Consider how Bill Clinton – an instinctual centrist if ever there was one – is now represented and remembered, both by his supporters and detractors, as a "liberal.") At the same time, the right was able to move much further to the right, turning former solid conservatives into relative liberals within their political community, and permitting the political mainstreaming of rightist beliefs which only a few years ago would be have been derided as fringe or worse. This is what Spufford means when he says that the collapse of Soviet Communism shifted the West's Overton Window dramatically to the right.

This shift has had profound if slowly-evolving implications for social welfare programs. Over the course of the past two decades, the formerly near-universal consensus in favor of unemployment insurance, government-guaranteed retirement benefits, health care, and other social services has became open to questioning within mainstream political space in a way that would have been virtually inconceivable as recently as the 1980s – back when no less than Ronald Reagan conceded that social security represented the "third rail" of American politics. With the disappearance of a hard left alternative, however, the right has been able to push its social darwinist libertarian agenda with much greater confidence, that is, with much less fear of provoking a far-left backlash. Likewise, social democrats had a much harder time positioning themselves as the reasonable middle ground between the social darwinist libertarian right and the communistic left, or of making the case that unless the state made a decent patch of things for ordinary citizens, the specter of Communism lay around the corner. Thus the terminal crisis of the centrally-planned Soviet economy, which on its face had nothing to do with the legitimacy or viability the social democratic welfare state (whose focus was not on planning production but on creating a minimum and egalitarian standard of social consumption), ended up reshaping perceptions of political possibilities in a way that has nolens volens undermined the political inevitability of and thus commitment to the social democratic welfare state.

Arguably the impact of the collapse of Soviet Communism was even greater in the Global South. Margaret Thatcher's provocation in the 1970s that "There Is No Alternative" to economic liberalism, became by the 1990s the absolute political reality almost everywhere on earth outside Cuba and North Korea. In terms of thinking about development, the collapse of a perceived socialist alternative terminated all elite resistance to the so-called structural adjustment programs which emerged as the dominant developmental practice of the 1990s – and which today is being applied to peripheral Europe. The collapse of the socialist alternative made it safe for development leaders to back away from commitments to reducing poverty, supplying basic needs or reducing inequality. 

Friday, June 08, 2012

Periodizing the Anthropocene

There's a very important new paper out in Nature entitled "Approaching a state shift in the Earth's biosphere." Executive summary:
Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state to another when they are forced across critical thresholds. Here we review evidence that the global ecosystem as a whole can react in the same way and is approaching a planetary-scale critical transition as a result of human influence. The plausibility of a planetary-scale ‘tipping point’ highlights the need to improve biological forecasting by detecting early warning signs of critical transitions on global as well as local scales, and by detecting feedbacks that promote such transitions. It is also necessary to address root causes of how humans are forcing biological changes.
Let's summarize this further: humans are producing a "sledgehammer effect" on the global ecosystem, overdrawing on a variety of "ecosystem services," and unless humanity changes the way it interacts with the environment in a radical way, we're looking at an ecological catastrophe of a scale that may well compare with the dinosaur-extinction event.

There's already an excited conversation taking place about this. For samples, check out Forbes, Wired, and Slate.

My own view on the "anthropocene" debate is that, seen in geological-ecological timescales, the phenomenon we've become acutely conscious of over the past couple of decades and which usually gets labelled "climate change" didn't actually begin with industrial revolution 250 years ago. Rather, it began 40,000 years ago, when humans arrived in Australia, initiating the ongoing process of mass mega-fauna extinctions. This phenomenon continued with the arrival of humans in the Americas, about 15,000 years ago, which also resulted in the loss of many of the continents' large beasts.  Agriculture begins around 10,000 years ago, and what's happened since then forms a single continuous process of progressive human "commandeering" (to use this paper's term) of the planet's resources.

Scientists usually treat the die-offs at the start of the Holocene as conceptually and processually separate from the current round of post-industrial die-offs, but I think it's better to regard them as one macro-process.  I suspect that the reason we treat these as separate historical episodes is partly because we still fetishize the historical significance of industrialization, and partly because we narcissistically think that human consciousness (and hence intent) is a biologically unique category.

Yes, industrialization enormously accelerated the continuous process of resource commandeering, but human population has been increasing more or less non-stop for 74,000 years (since the Toba Eruption [update: of which more below]), and ecosystemic resource appropriation by humans has been continuously increasing in parallel. Industrialization allowed for an increase in the pace of this commandeering, but did not a change the motive or direction, all of which has been trending for millennia toward global-scale ecosystem disruption. Even without global warming, the human impact on the global ecosystem would/will eventually be total. (The idea that humans would completely harness all of Earth's resources was explicitly blueprinted back in the 1960s by Konstantinos Doxiadis, published as Ecumenopolis: The Inevitable City of the Future — the most totalizing vision of modernization ever produced.) 

What has further accelerated the threat of planetary-scale ecosystemic "state shift" is an inadvertent byproduct of industrialization, namely the carbonization of the atmosphere and the oceans, which is now a second planetary-scale anthropogenic forcing mechanism. In geological terms, however, this distinction between direct and intentional commandeering of resources and indirect changes caused by atmospheric carbonization is overdrawn: it's all part of a single integrated process of anthropogenic ecosystemic transformation — two phases of a single historical episode.

(We don't have the evidence, but there's no reason not to believe that other episodes of global-scale "state shift," such as the K/T extinction event or the Cambrian explosion, didn't also proceed through various "phases" in which the central dynamic driver changed — for example, the initial shift may have been some alteration in atmospheric chemistry, but then as it unfolded, it killed or generated species, which then became direct drivers of change in their own right. None of that makes it hard for us to see these historical process as singular.)

Because we narcissistic humans like to believe human intelligence is some unique and privileged biological feature, we insist on distinguishing between the direct and intentional commandeering of resources (killing or domesticating megafauna, plowing the Great Plains, etc.) and the unintentional byproducts of our actions, like atmospheric carbonization. That distinction isn't particularly meaningful at an ecological level, however.

In sum, I believe that some Archimedean intellect millions of years from now is likely to regard the shift to the Anthropocene as a single process that unfolded over eighty millennia, beginning with the Toba Eruption, and culminating in the complete melting of the polar ice caps around the year 4000. How many humans will be around by then to see that world is anyone's guess….

Update: The Toba Eruption is hypothesized to have reduced the human population to as few as 10,000, isolated in a couple of tropical refugia. This population bottleneck may well have created the conditions for an extremely harsh "survival of the fittest" moment. Although anatomically modern humans predate the Toba Eruption by 100,000 years, this winnowing effect of the Toba bottleneck may well have selected for physically indistinct byt psychologically or socially crucial traits for surviving amid climatic chaos. Interestingly, geological events — asteroids and mass volcanic eruptions — are hypothesized to be the root cause of all the other big die-offs. If the Toba Hypothesis is correct (it's highly controversial) it would suggest that the Anthropocene is just another example of the same sorts of shift, which would seriously downgrade the somewhat exalted role that we humans cast ourselves in when we deem ourselves to be the fundamental driver of the historic shift. In fact, our own "peak humanity" moment is perhaps best seen as a mere epiphenomenon of deep geological processes.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Deviant globalization in film

Here's a list (inevitably limited) of films, most from the last decade, that depict various "deviant globalization" phenomena. Note that these movies don't just feature illicit activities, but rather address the transnational aspects of crime and, more specifically, how cross-border regulatory and moral gradients create opportunities for illicit actors.

To learn more about deviant globalization, buy the book!

Dying to Leave (2003)
Transplant Tourism (2003)
Born into Brothels (2004)
Darwin's Nightmare (2004)
Cocaine Cowboys (2006)
Lives for Sale (2007)
Svetlana's Journey (2007)
Frontline: Ghana, Digital Dumping Ground (2010)
National Geographic: Drugs, Inc. (2012)
How to Make Money Selling Drugs (2012)

Feature films:
Port of New York (1949)
Puppet on a Chain (1971)
The French Connection (1971)
Midnight Express (1978)
Scarface (1981)
The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
My Family (1995)
Traffic (2000)
Blow (2001)
The Tailor of Panama (2001)
Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
The Salton Sea (2002)
Maria Full of Grace (2004)
The Constant Gardner (2005)
Lord of War (2005)
Blood Diamond (2006)
Miami Vice (2006) 
We Own the Night (2007)
American Gangster (2007)
Elite Squad (2007)
Eastern Promises (2007)
Trade (2007)
Import/Export (2007)
The Jammed (2007)
Gomorrah (2008)
A Prophet (2009) 
Sin Nombre (2009)
Contagion (2010)
Miss Bala (2011)
Elephant White (2011)
Contraband (2012)
Savages (2012)
Paradise: Love (2012)

Bangkok Hilton (1989)
Traffik (1989)
The Wire (2002-2008)
Weeds (2005-2011)
Breaking Bad (2008- )
Boardwalk Empire (2010- )